2

A Discussion With Education Minister George Abbott

A few weeks ago, a teacher whomI have come to know very well and whom I highly respect, David Wees, sent me a message on Twitter that he had an exciting opportunity to share.  The following day, we caught up on the phone and he asked me if I would like to help moderate a discussion on Twitter with the Education Minister George Abbott!  What a fantastic opportunity for people to engage Mr. Abbott in dialogue around education in British Columbia.  I want to thank David for this opportunity and encourage all you to follow along on June 13th at 4:00pm PST on Twitter (hashtag #bced).

Rather than write my own blog on this, I have stolen (with his permission 😉 ) David’s blog post.  If you have any questions, please email me.

From David Wees:

When George Abbott first became education minister, I sent out an email to him inviting him to join us on Twitter, and find out how educators are using it to communicate with each other across vast geographic distances. Unfortunately, the email got lost during his leadership attempt in BC, and I forgot about it. However, a few weeks ago, his aide, Chris Sandve contacted me through my website and indicated they were interested in getting back to my email. George Abbott sent me back an email recently, suggesting that he would like to participate in a discussion through Twitter on the topics of “technology and personalized education and how we can work together to build a great education system in British Columbia.”

We’ve planned the discussion for June 13th, at 4pm. Chris Wejr and myself will be the moderators for the event, so direct any technical questions our way.

Anyone who wants to follow along in the conversation can read the threads on the #BCed hashtag on Twitter by following this link. If you have a Twitter account, and are interested in participating in the conversation, just make sure to read the #BCed hashtag at the right time, and include the hashtag #BCed in your tweets. If you want to try out Twitter for this conversation, but are unsure of how to get started, you can see my series of videos on using Twitter for some help.

We are considering this an open dialogue so that anyone with an interest in education in British Columbia is welcome to participate. This includes, but is not limited to, teachers, administrators, school support staff, parents, school trustees, media personnel, and students. We welcome both participants from the private and public sectors of education, since George Abbott is the minister of all education in BC. We are even happy to have participants from outside of British Columbia participate.

Please be aware that the chat will be very fast, and George Abbott will not be able to respond to every reply sent his way. However, it will still be an opportunity to express our opinion, and potentially shape the vision of education in British Columbia.

17

School Choice: Maintaining the Hierarchies

“Neo-liberal policies involving market solutions may actually serve to reproduce – not subvert – traditional hierarchies of class and race” — Michael W. Apple

Christy Clark, the new Premier in British Columbia, has long been an advocate of increasing the opportunities for parents to choose schools for their children.  Most people’s response to this is that it sounds good – parents should be able to make a decision on which school best meets the needs of their child.  In an ideal world, this may work but more questions arise as we look deeper into who truly benefits from school choice.

As most of you know, I believe the autonomy to choose is extremely important in life.   Students, staff, and parents need to be provided with equal opportunity to choose how to do things in life.  The key word in the previous statement is EQUAL.

When we think about school choice, who does it actually benefit?  If a parent is to choose a school away from their neighbourhood school, they must have some of the following:

  • a school nearby (within driving distance)

    Only if you have the capital....

    Only if you have the capital....

  • the cultural capital to discuss school choice and knowledge of options
  • a vehicle for transportation to another school
  • a parent available to drive to another school
  • the finances to be able to pay for private schools or academies (ie. sports academies in BC) as well as transportation

So I ask the question again: who does school choice truly benefit?  The answer: students from middle-class urban households.  It would be fantastic to be able to drive across town to participate in a Sports Academy – but the student must have access to a number of assets before he/she can even consider this option.  I do not blame any parent for making informed decisions that best suit the educational needs of the child; in fact, I think parents need to be MORE involved in educational decisions.  But how does school choice benefit a child from a family without a vehicle? One that cannot afford the tuition to a private school or BC academy? One that lives in a rural community in which the next school is hours away? One that has a single parent working two jobs?  From a different angle, if students are choosing to attend schools outside of their neighbourhood, what does this do to the community sense of schools (although this argument will be discussed at another time)?

At my previous school, I attempted to bring the Hockey Canada Academy to my school (at a cost of almost $1000/student each semester).  The idea is fantastic; students are provided with the opportunity to participate in something in which they are passionate.  Unfortunately, as I grew as an educator I began to realize that not ALL students are provided with the opportunity – only those that have the capital.  Why is it acceptable that only students who can afford choice schools are provided with the opportunity?

We are now seeing schools and districts compete for students.  Parents are provided with Fraser Institute Rankings, ‘standardized’ test scores (that are often marked by their own schools), a variety of academies (that often come with an tuition cost), specialized schools, ‘traditional’ schools, and an option of attending an independent school (based on religion, culture, specialization, etc).  Schools that refuse to market themselves, teach to the test, or compete with others schools are sometimes seeing parents choose to send their child elsewhere.  Apple (2001) states that there is a “crucial shift in emphasis… from student needs to student performance and from what the school does for the student to what the student does for the school.”  He also goes on to say that “more time and energy is spent on maintaining or enhancing a public image of a ‘good school’ and less time and energy is spent on pedagogic and curricular substance”.

As stated, I am not against choice in education.  However, this choice must be available to ALL students so every student in BC is provided with equal opportunity for a ‘personalized learning’ experience.  This means that if districts are going to provide specialized schools and academies, all students within the district must be provided with access – in particular, transportation and funding.  This also means that rural schools must be provided with funding to be able to provide students with learning opportunities comparable to students in urban communities.

Premier Christy Clark’s education plan includes (from “Christy Clark’s Education Vision: More School Choice”:

  • Support independent and faith-based schools, and promote public-school academies focusing on sports and arts. (She has long been a strong proponent of school choice; her nine-year-old son attends an independent school.)
  • Keep the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) (our provincial standardized test that is used to publish and rank schools)
  • Enhance and emphasize math and science, including promoting province-wide competitions to recognize excellence in those fields.
  • Publish detailed information about school programs, achievements, operations and facilities on school-district websites so parents can make informed choices.

I see similarities from Apple (2001), in discussing the US situation, when he states “We are witnessing a process in which the state shifts the blame for the very evident inequalities in access and outcome it has promised to reduce, from itself on to individual schools, parents, and children.” Ball (1993) also states “markets in education provide the possibility for the pursuit of class advantage and generate a differentiated and stratified system of schooling”.    A great blog post from Ira Socol also touches on this issue as he writes,

So parent-based systems reward the haves. They have choices because they have funds, knowledge, transportation, the ability to even home school. And the have-nots are punished. Those children have parents without access to information, without access to transportation (and thus charter choice), without access to their own successful educations as a support system.

School choice, as it is now in BC, does not solve the real problems of the hierarchies of class and race that exist within the current system – they actually maintain them.  Unfortunately, we often only hear the voices of those with the cultural capital to speak on behalf of their children and we don’t hear the voices of the marginalized.   When we hear that a solution to our education system challenges is school choice, we need to question where this voice is coming from – is it a voice that speaks on behalf of ALL students or just his/her child?

Clark also goes on to say, “My proposals are designed to involve all the stakeholders in creating a kindergarten to 12 system that truly reflects the needs of students.”  I am not sure how providing school choice is a way to involve ALL stakeholders and meet the needs of ALL students.   Ravitch (2008) writes that “Democratic education [means] that everyone must be educated as if they were children of the most advantaged members of society”.  I realize that the funding formula in BC currently encourages schools/districts to compete for students so they are often forced in the direction of promoting school choice.  Most will agree that our system needs to change but school choice, the way it is currently designed in BC, benefits primarily the students from advantaged families; schools need to collaborate, rather than compete, and be adequately funded so programs are not cut but are created so as to offer ALL students within each school REAL choice in their education.

References:

Apple, M.W. (2001) Comparing Neo-Liberal Projects and Inequality in Education, Comparative Education, 37(4), 409-423

Ball, S.J. (1993) Education Markets, Choice and Social Class: the market as a class strategy in the UK and USA, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 14(1), 3-19

Ravitch, D.R. (2008) Education and Democracy: The United States as a Historical Case Study, in Coulter, D.L. & Weins, J.R. (Eds) Why Do We Educate?  Renewing the Conversation, pp. 42-57 (Blackwell Publishing, Mass, USA)